On 15 March 2020, the COVID-19 crisis forced the closure of the exhibition Soulmates – Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin just two days after it had opened. It was a huge blow. The project had taken three-and-a-half years to prepare and had involved every single museum department working in close collaboration, from conservation to logistics to PR. Now the public were barred from seeing it. With luck, the restrictions may soon be lifted—with provisions in place, of course, to ensure everyone’s safety. In the meantime, we’d like to give you a glimpse behind the scenes—not so much to console you as to whet your appetite for what awaits when we can finally reopen. For example, there is the remarkable gallery with aubergine-coloured walls. In a series of alternating ‘dance steps’ on canvas and cardboard, the walls of this room are filled by major works by our two artists as they weave in and out of each other under the theme of ‘Dance, Theatre, and Masquerade’.
Sharing the long wall with three works by Jawlensky are two paintings by Werefkin. Second from the left is the painting Into the Night... For Werefkin it was so significant that in the catalogue to the 1910 exhibition by the artist group Neue Künstlervereinigung München she described it as her most important painting of that year. Second from the right is the mysterious Skaters, which once belonged to her friend Paul Klee.
To the far left of the wall is Spanish Woman, and on the far right, Portrait of the Dancer Alexander Sacharoff, both painted by Jawlensky in 1913 and both from the Museum Wiesbaden collection. In the middle, on loan from our exhibition partner, the Lenbachhaus in Munich, is the synthesis of these two works, Alexander Sacharoff as a Spanish Woman. It is always particularly satisfying when a painting from another collection allows us to make a thematic juxtaposition of this sort, shedding light on one of our own works and helping us explain its content more clearly, for example, by demonstrating the way in which visual motifs recur and evolve in an artist’s work.
The centrepiece of the gallery’s end wall is the striking work that we chose for the exhibition poster—the dangerously cat-eyed Turandot, who, according to legend, beheaded all her lovers who couldn’t solve her riddles. Jawlensky created this painting in 1912 after seeing a performance in Munich of Giacomo Puccini’s opera of the same name.
At the moment it feels as if we’re all in some kind of waiting room. Somehow, Werefkin seems to have anticipated a similarly strange situation in her 1909 painting, now hanging to the left of Turandot bearing the title Circus or Before the Performance. Everything is poised for the show to start—just like our exhibition. We’re all waiting for the curtain to rise and the action to commence, but nobody (neither you, nor we) has any idea when that day will arrive. Just like our museum staff, everyone in Werefkin’s painting is in position: the soberly dressed public in the ‘cheap seats’, the brightly clad special guests in the VIP stand, the ringside employees. Smoothing the sand one last time before the horses enter, two circus assistants pace in green uniforms (like our conservators inspecting the galleries one last time before each opening, before ‘curtain-up’), while the two ringmasters in dark tailcoats, their backs to us, are whispering together, probably wondering what to do if the unexpected delay goes on any longer (a virtual tour? a blog?).
The longer one stands looking at the painting, the harder the waiting seems. Nagging questions, normally swept aside in the rush of daily life, creep up from behind and then pounce on us: Why can’t we bear to stand still for a minute? Why is time suddenly behaving differently? And when, at last, can I step into that wonderful, luscious purple arena that awaits me? And when I do step into that world, will I myself be an actor or just a spectator? Will I be pulling the strings like the ringmaster, or dancing to someone else’s tune?
In fact, the painting does indeed contain different tempos at once. The white paper lanterns, interposed between the tent poles, create a calming, harmonious rhythm. But then there is also the jarring tempo of the many red restless little streaks on the yellow canopy that act like the ticking hand on a clock, nervously counting down the seconds. Time is relative and people may perceive it differently, but we only become aware of it when something out of the ordinary happens, bringing everything out of sync—just as in this ‘elastic’ moment in time.
Dr. Roman Zieglgänsberger
Translated by Lance Anderson